I must admit it has been a very long time since I have taken a test of any kind – yet I can still recall that feeling of anxiousness that bubbled up inside me for days before an exam. Perhaps you can relate.
Feeling nervous about test taking is a normal reaction for many. Whether it’s taking a high school history final exam, SATs, driver’s test, or licensing exam, extreme anxiety can have a negative impact on performance as well as self-esteem, confidence, and motivation.
According to Craig Sawchuk, Ph.D., L.P., clinical psychologist at the Mayo Clinic, common causes of “test anxiety” include: Fear of crowded spaces or high-pressure situations, poor study skills, learning disabilities, ADHD, and other conditions that impact academic performance.
Anxiety is known as an up-regulating emotion, says Sawchuk, causing physical symptoms such as an increase in heart rate, difficulty breathing, sweating, and muscle tightening. These symptoms can make it more difficult to think, adding to the stress associated with taking a test.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies anxiety in children when fears and worries interfere with school, home, or play activities. (cdc.org)
Administrators, teachers, and parents should not wait for students to be clinically diagnosed with anxiety before addressing the issue. Instead, psychologists agree that it’s important to address the root cause of fear in each situation. For example:
- Is the person afraid that they won‘t live up to the expectations of important people in their life?
- Does the individual equate grades to their personal worth?
- Does the person place too much emphasis on a single test?
- Do they feel guilty or anxious as a result of inadequate preparation for the test?
- Will they associate poor performance on tests with the level of intelligence? If they fail a test are they likely to label themselves as “stupid”?
A person with a higher level of intelligence may learn something quicker and easier than others, yet their test scores may not accurately reflect their knowledge depending on the testing conditions (e.g., fatigue, anxiety, motivation, test format, length of test) (DeMars, 2010; Duckworth et al., 2011; Wolf & Smith, 1995).
Most people perform their best when taking tests pertaining to subjects of interest or ones which they have an innate aptitude for. Others do better with multiple-choice or essay-type questions.
Test anxiety may not go away completely but there are strategies that may reduce the fear and stress.
Here are some suggestions from Dr. Sawchuk:
- Learn how to study efficiently. You’ll feel more relaxed if you systematically study and practice the material that will be on a test.
- Study early and in similar places. It’s much better to study a little bit over time than cramming your studying all at once. Also, spending your time studying in the same or similar places that you take your test can help you recall the information you need at test time.
- Establish a consistent pretest routine. Learn what works for you, and follow the same steps each time you get ready to take a test. This will ease your stress level and help ensure that you’re well-prepared.
- Talk to your teacher. Make sure you understand what’s going to be on each test and know how to prepare.
- Learn relaxation techniques to help you stay calm and confident right before and during the test.
- Don’t forget to eat and drink. Your brain needs fuel to function. Eat the day of the test and drink plenty of water. Avoid sugary drinks such as soda, which can cause your blood sugar to peak and then drop, or caffeinated beverages such as energy drinks or coffee, which can increase anxiety.
- Get some exercise on exam day. It can release tension and increase endorphins. Endorphins are a chemical released by the body that promote positive feelings.
- Get plenty of sleep. Sleep is directly related to academic performance.
Do not ignore a learning disability. Test anxiety may improve by addressing an underlying condition that interferes with the ability to learn, focus, or concentrate — for example, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or dyslexia. In many cases, a student diagnosed with a learning disability is entitled to assistance with test taking, such as extra time to complete a test, testing in a less distracting room or having questions read aloud.